The Cost of Sounding a Little Funny

Sending Your Child to Speech Therapy in His Second Language

“He sounds a little funny when he speaks Estonian,” the new preschool Estonian teacher told me. “He should go to speech therapy.” Restraining my mirth, I asked her if I sounded a little funny, too. Furrowing her brow, she allowed that I did.

“That’s because we’re Americans,” I told her. Stars and stripes and speech impediments forever! Or at least if you can’t make a ö or an õ.

Properly chastened, the teacher stared at me with new-found curiosity. Still, though I laughed about it and imagined my son completing job applications in 15 years’ time, writing under the question about whether he requires any special accommodations, I have a slight speech impediment when I speak Estonian, I couldn’t get her comment out of my head.

He sounds a little funny.

It’s true. He actually does sound a little funny when he talks, not only in Estonian, but in English and in Russian too, possibly as a result of speaking three languages at age 5. Some of it is the usual adorable preschool talk, like when he calls exercise “extra-size,” or says breakfast as “brefkast.” But more than that, he often repeats a single word or a phrase at the beginning of his sentence, like a CD skipping. Was it a stammer? I vowed to check it out, no matter how ridiculous I felt about speech therapy. Three weeks after the conversation with the new teacher, I was Googling logopeed (speech therapist) and making an appointment for him to see a professional.

It turned out that the closest speech therapist was conveniently located in the building where we take Estonian class on Saturdays anyway. The website claimed that “healthy, correct, rich speech is the confident step that helps children prevent psychological complexes and problems in the future!” It also claimed that the speech therapist was an expert in bilingual children, so I decided to give it a shot. I made an appointment and took him for an assessment, at a cost of 15 euros ($16.76).

The logopeed turned out to be a kindly middle-aged Russian woman named Veronika in sensible low-heeled shoes, whom my son adored on sight. She spoke no English, but had seen many Russian-Estonian bilingual children. She took him to her office and from my perch on the chair in the waiting room, I heard hoots issuing forth from their room like the calls of forlorn owls. Forty minutes later, they emerged. My son was wiggling with delight and clutching a fistful of xeroxed exercises. He has trouble differentiating his ш from his щ, she warned, but I didn’t have to worry that he was stammering. Instead, it was the result of his lack of executive control as a five-year-old. When he speaks English, he has to actively repress his Russian and his Estonian, and vice versa. His control mechanisms for picking the correct language were still weak and so he would sometimes repeat his initial word over and over as he searched for the correct phrase in the right language to finish his sentence. She suggested that follow-up visits to learn breathing gymnastics would relieve some of the pressure as we waited for his executive control to develop with age.

Breathing gymnastics? Looking at the delight on my son’s face, I decided we would move forward. He would be the Mary Lou Retton of the lungs! We agreed on a course of 6 weekly sessions, at a cost of 15.50 ($17.37) each. Though the universal health insurance in Estonia covers speech therapy in the event of communication problems, sounding a little funny did not qualify. The xeroxed exercises in his sweaty fist were to be practiced every day for ten minutes. They bore endearing titles like, “The Tongue Greets the Chin,” “The Curious Little Tongue” and “Punishing the Lips.” The lips were to be punished via the repetition of the sound p-p-p-p, a sort of labial spanking. My son delighted in disciplining the lips, frequently pulling out the homework sheet at home and chortling with glee.

So far, it has been four weeks since we began the speech therapy. I can’t say that I can tell a difference in his pronunciation in any of his languages or in the stalling mechanism at the beginning of his sentences. I have tired of curious little tongues, too. He does, however, eagerly look forward to his meetings with Veronika and makes frequent reference to his speech therapist and the “work” they do. He enjoys leaving preschool early on Mondays for their appointments. She returns his affections, and refers to him as “her little miracle.” The preschool Estonian teacher is silent on the topic and I, I presume, sound just as funny as I did before.

Total cost: 93 euros ($104) for six sessions.

Healthy, correct, rich speech without psychological complexes: priceless.

Erin Crouch got into the Russian language for the fame and fortune, but stuck around for the jogging suits and gold chains. She lives in Tallinn, Estonia.

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